Mary Sanchez

September 12, 2013

No shame in preserving history of KCK church

First and foremost, the significance of St. John the Divine Catholic Church needs to be honored. From 1937 to 1992, the church was a focal point for its parishioners. Their lives opened and closed there, celebrated in baptisms, weddings, fiestas and funerals.

The angels that might have saved St. John the Divine Catholic Church years ago never arrived.

Now, it’s mere mortals who are left to bicker over its fate. The contentious accusations surrounding the building’s future disrespects all those who once attended the former Mexican-American church in Argentine — including my grandmother.

The late Gothic revival building survived two great floods (1903 and 1951), urban renewal programs and two decades of deterioration.

A community meeting Friday night will either push the run-down structure toward demolition, or it could give backing to place it on the National Register of Historic Places and perhaps a future as a cultural center.

Just about all of the major players involved are being accused of something. Many of the comments are petty.

First and foremost, the significance of the church needs to be honored. From 1937 to 1992, the church was a focal point for its parishioners. Their lives opened and closed there, celebrated in baptisms, weddings, fiestas and funerals.

But even this history is being discounted or spun with negativity.

“This old church brings back memories of ethnic discrimination as well as years of blight in this community,” reads a letter signed by Unified Government Commissioner Ann Brandau-Murguia.

Blight is the strong argument. Windows are boarded up and a portion collapsed.

And it’s true that the church was intended to give Mexican families a separate place when they were not desired elsewhere.

Even after World War II, when Mexican and Mexican-American men returned home from fighting for the United States overseas, their families could not find welcoming seats in the pews of St. John the Evangelist, just a few blocks away.

But this poorly framed argument should not negate the importance of historic artifacts, the stories that surround them, even those layered with discrimination.

The attitudes of that era are just that — of another era. They need to be documented, remembered and placed in the past. The Mexican families who attended St. John the Divine for decades did so with pride. It’s important that their history is detailed and made known to broader communities.

Mexican-American history is often left out or discounted in retellings of segregation. But many Latino communities suffered the same indignities, although the prejudice was often governed by community whim, not the legal segregation that plagued African-Americans.

Besides, if past segregation were a negative trigger, then the community would despise the nearby St. John the Evangelist church, now merged with another parish. . After all, that was where Latinos were once denied the full ability to practice their faith.

Rather, much of the community distaste is directed to more recent history. It was the Catholic Church that closed the parish and then sold it to a man who was unable to finance its restoration. His daughter then inherited it.

The now-decrepit condition of the church has long been a troubling eyesore. Unlike so many parts of the city where ethnic groups settled, then moved on, the Argentine community has maintained its Mexican-American identity.

This is why resurrecting the building as a cultural center would be a perfect answer, however unlikely at this point.

At the very least, the artifacts inside the structure must be saved. The chandeliers are said to be from Spain. The altar is intact.

The stained glass windows honor parishioners, all Spanish surnames except for one. And that is a pane with the name of Dorothy Gallagher. She was a benefactor and former director of the Guadalupe Center, the longest continuing operating social service agency for Latinos in the U.S., established on the Westside in 1919.

Most important, the large stained glass window that faces Metropolitan Avenue must be preserved. It’s the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe and is believed to have been imported from Mexico.

A newspaper clipping dates its placement to 1937. That would have been the period when my grandmother attended St. John the Divine.

She was a single mother from Mexico City raising my father and slicing meat at the nearby Armour packing plant.

Many people were poor then, struggling through the Great Depression and then World War II. But she maintained her dignity during an era when others saw her presence with disdain. I find nothing shameful about her existence, most certainly not where she worshipped.

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